Cappuccino Review: Mother Fool’s

1101 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53703

https://motherfools.com/

4* out of 5 (Very Good)

Note that they are check/cash only.

Mother Fool’s was one of the first cappuccinos I reviewed back in 2009.  They made a great cappuccino then, so this was certainly a shop that I wanted to get back to for this round of cappuccino reviews.  I had a pretty busy end to my summer, but in late July I stopped in to try out their cappuccino again.

Some things haven’t changed at all. It is still a classic Madison “hippie” coffee shop, and one of the few with live music.  For a long time they have featured a good selection of vegan baked goods, but the big change since the pandemic is that their espresso drinks are now vegan only as well. It’s a pretty radical move that puts them in a small club nationally.  Certainly, I don’t know of any other vegan only coffee shop in Madison (though I’m not vegan, so I might just be unaware).

The lack of whole cow milk left me in a bit of a quandary as far as a review goes. Oat milk was the recommended dairy replacement for a cappuccino, but I can’t say I have ever had it before. And it is also hard to compare the cappuccino at Mother Fool’s with other shops, because whole milk is a central component to a traditional cappuccino’s flavor and texture profile. With all that in mind I’m putting a “*” next to this rating, because it seems a little strange to compare a vegan cappuccino directly to a milk-based cappuccino.  But my rating just reflects how much I liked the drink itself, so just take this all at face value.

I had an oat-milk cappuccino and a vegan donut (which I have had before and are great). I was a bit surprised at how good the oat milk tasted in a cappuccino. When integrated with the espresso the oat milk gave the drink a nice “baked-good” taste of caramel and brown sugar.  It had a surprisingly neutral creaminess, though the flavor profile certainly was different from any cow milk cappuccino that I’ve ever had.  The consistency of the oat milk seemed a bit thinner than whole milk, though not nearly as much as I had expected, and so I’m guessing this hurt the definition of the latte art. That said, the steamed milk still had a good amount of microfoam and a nice consistency.

I still like whole milk more than oat milk, but Mother Fool’s makes a great cappuccino regardless of the type of milk.  It should certainly be a destination for any vegan, and also one for non-vegans to check out.

As this is the first coffee shop I’ve reviewed from my 2009 list it is worth noting that the drink they are serving now is likely better than the one I liked so much more than a decade ago. However, the ’10s were a period of pretty dramatic improvement in the Madison coffee culture. Mother Fool’s has certainly kept up, and it will be interesting to see if others have too.

Flash cappuccino reviews in the west

I took a trip out west and ordered a traditional cappuccino everywhere I went.  Denver and Omaha win.  All out of 5 stars.

Kansas City – I was impressed by the coffee scene.

Filling Station Coffee
2980 McGee Trafficway, Kansas City, MO 64108
3 stars – Cool location in an old garage, but unremarkable caps.

Thou Mayest
412 Delaware St B, Kansas City, MO 64105
4 stars – Hipster shop near a public market worth checking out.

Monarch Coffee
3550 Broadway Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64111
4 stars – Decent cap south of downtown, interesting other drinks.

Boulder – Not terrible, but overall disappointing.

Boxcar Coffee
1825 Pearl St B, Boulder, CO 80302
4 stars – Standard good cap, also has butcher and cheese counter!

January Coffee
1886 30th St Suite B, Boulder, CO 80301
4.5 stars – New coffee shop, a touch better than Boxcar. Great views.

Denver – Best of the trip.

Corvus Coffee
1740 S Broadway, Denver, CO 80210
5 stars – First outstanding cap of the trip, some insanely expensive specialty beans as well.

Sweet Bloom
1619 Reed St, Lakewood, CO 80214
5 stars – A roaster that Bradbury’s in Madison serves, exceptional cap.

Estes Park – It kind of all sucked.

Kind Coffee
470 E Elkhorn Ave, Estes Park, CO 80517
1 star – Didn’t even serve a cap and the coffee tasted worse than at a hotel breakfast.

Inkwell and Brew
150 E Elkhorn Ave, Estes Park, CO 80517
3 stars – Only decent cap in town it seems, cool little stationary/gift shop too.

Raven’s Roast
157 W Elkhorn Ave, Estes Park, CO 80517
2 stars – Cap was a foamy mess from you might get in 2006, barista told me there were chaotic vibes.

Omaha

Archetype Coffee
3926 Farnam St, Omaha, NE 68131
5 stars – Awesome cap in Nebraska, also have cool shirts.

 

Cappuccino Review: Johnson Public House

908 E. Johnson St. Madison, WI 53703 

https://www.jph4ever.com/

3 out of 5 stars (Good)

As I mentioned in my previous post, the pandemic has not been kind to cappuccino lovers in Madison. Many coffee shops were completely or partially closed for much of 2020.  Good baristas are talented people, but found that talent worthless in the labor market as it was, and so many of the best moved on to other careers. Even when coffee shops opened again, they typically only served drinks to go. The very vertical paper cup is not a great way to enjoy a cappuccino, a drink that needs some horizontal space to express the nuanced flavors of espresso and milk together.

I say all this, because Johnson Public House served one of the best cappuccinos in Madison before the pandemic. They were also one of the coffee shops making an early comeback with online ordering and to-go cups. I always found them to be disappointing for some reason after the pandemic began. I chalked it up the stresses of making to-go orders during a pandemic, and the inferiority of paper cups. But they have long since brought back in cafe orders, and I’ve encountered similar issues with their cappuccinos.

A “proper” cappuccino is 1/3 froth, 1/3 milk, 1/3 espresso. The standard “third wave” interpretation of “froth” is microfoam rather than the pile of course foam of traditional Italian cappuccinos; it should have the consistency similar to paint.  Because foam takes up more volume than milk, too little foam will lead a drink that is overly milky, drowning the flavors of the espresso. Microfoam on the other hand has a tendency to accentuate espresso flavors, adding a richness and sweetness to the espresso without taking over.

On a recent trip to Johnson Public House my cappuccino had far too little foam, forming a thin layer on top of the drink. The foam that was there was a bit too course, which was obvious from the blobby latte art. You really can’t do good latte art without good microfoam, and so well defined latte art is a good indication that the milk was steamed correctly. The cappuccino I had was too milky tasting. I couldn’t tell the quality of the espresso, because most of what I tasted was the unfrothed milk.

The cheddar scone I had was quite good, and they also have a rather complete breakfast and lunch menu. That’s a nice change from some coffee shops (I’m looking at you Ledger!) that basically only have packaged cookies if you get there past 10am. I’ll certainly be back to Johnson Public House – I hope that sometime soon they will starting serving up top-notch cappuccinos like they did in the good old days.

 

 

Reviewing Madison cappuccinos once more: Ledger Coffee

Back in 2008 and 2009, I set out to review as many cappuccinos in Madison as I could. Back then the “third wave” had most decidedly not hit Madison, and the only place that had a first rate cappuccino (by today’s standards) was the newly opened (and still excellent) Bradbury’s. (You can go back and see those reviews by using the “Madison Cappuccino Reviews” category in this blog.)

My standards were also much different back then. I had yet to move to the east coast where I learned a lot about cappuccinos and coffee in general, and had the privilege to try drinks from some of the wold’s best espresso shops in New York City, LA, and Europe. I also undertook to review some of DC’s coffee shops on this blog when I was living there (“DC Cappuccino Reviews” category). DC is no New York or LA, but they have a thriving coffee scene. So I learned quite a bit.

A lot has changed in Madison’s coffee scene since then, and I feel the need to take a look around town again. The pandemic also did a number on local coffee shops. Whether it was the flight of experienced baristas from food service or those paper to-go cups, it seems that cappuccino quality really deteriorated during the pandemic. I’m hoping this trend has reversed a bit.

I’m going to be a bit more holistic this time. Rather than breaking down ratings by each aspect of the cappuccino, I’ll just give single rating from 1 to 5 stars.  Also ratings will only reflect the cappuccino itself, not the coffee shop in general or other items there.  But I’ll describe what is great (and not so great) about each cappuccino.  I’m only going to try one location for the chains, and there will be some I avoid (like that chain with all of the health-code violations….). I’ll start with a go-to coffee shop near my house, in a formerly abandoned feed mill and beet processing plant.

Ledger Coffee

3241 Garver Green Suite 140

ledgercoffee.com

4 out of 5 stars (Very Good)

Located in the redeveloped Garver Feed Mill, Ledger is the only first-rate espresso shop within walking distance to my house. So I find myself there quite a bit. Up until a few years ago I just knew this building as a decaying former beet processing plant behind Olbrich Gardens that I would pass along the bike trail. Now it contains an Ian’s pizza, a fish co-op, kombucha producer, yoga studio, and a number of other interesting businesses.

Ledger Coffee
Ledger Coffee

Ledger roasts their own beans on site, and is a pretty small operation. They only have a few baked goods from outside bakeries, and they often sell out of the best stuff pretty early in the morning. They only do to-go orders (sad paper cups). Although the Garver site has lots of seating outside, so you can linger. This means that if you want them to make your drink in a real cup, you need to bring it yourself. So I brought along a 6 oz cup from home, and they happily made me a cappuccino in it.

Ledger Cappuccino

The milk and foam were top notch, with some nice latte art. Of course, latte art itself doesn’t matter, but its presence is a good indication that the milk is of the right consistency (with micro-foam instead of course foam) and the barista is skilled.  The foam was sweet and smooth – perfect actually.

The only reason why Ledger’s cappuccino isn’t top-tier is the “flatness” of the espresso.  I don’t know whether this is a problem with how the shot was pulled or the beans, but the espresso seems to lack much depth of flavor. There is simply a slight bitterness and standard espresso flavor, but not much in the way of interesting fruit, caramel, or chocolate notes.  I know that their single origin coffees are very good (and interesting) when I’ve prepared them at home (either pour-over or espresso), but I haven’t been as impressed with their prepared espresso. That being said I have not tried their espresso blend beans, so perhaps that is the issue.

Even given the lackluster espresso Ledger makes a very good cappuccino. After all, I keep coming back for it! I also highly recommend their seasonal lattes, including the really impressive rose latte that they have been serving lately. They also have very good vegan donuts on weekends (they are really good…trust me!). But come early, because they sell out fast.

A public comment to the Madison City Council in support of the Raemisch Farm development

For context on the Raemisch Farm controversy see: https://madison.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/objection-to-f-35-noise-forces-city-council-supermajority-vote-on-farmland-development/article_d59f4edc-044c-553e-a130-c19d2fe1ed69.html

I am writing in support of the rezoning and new plat for the “Raemisch Farm” development (Common Council Feb 22, 2022 meeting item 5). As the Plan Commission has now twice determined, the developer has met all the necessary standards in their proposal to support the rezoning and plat approval. Furthermore the developer has bent over backwards to accommodate all reasonable neighborhood requests, even agreeing to give up portions of the property for non-development uses.

At this point it is obvious that the real goal of many against this proposal is to impose so many road-blocks as to dramatically reduce any possible profit from a redevelopment, making it undesirable for any future development. In a real sense, opponents of this redevelopment want the city to take a significant portion of the property value from Raemisch, forcing him to sell for less valuable non-developmental purposes.

Not only have the Council’s actions approached property theft, they have also provided a perfect example of how the Council’s policies are a significant driver of housing unaffordability in Madison. We desperately need more housing and yet the restrictive zoning policies and lengthy approval process means that only the most profitable development projects make economic sense. Every delay and additional requirement makes our housing shortage worse. New construction is almost always expensive, but without these properties people with higher incomes will bid-up the costs of older homes and apartments. This is exactly what I am seeing in my neighborhood (Eken Park), where competition from higher income people has made even modest older homes unaffordable. Our city is facing a housing crisis, and yet the Council seems intent on making it worse.

The threat of F-35 noise was the purported reason driving many alders to vote down this development at a previous Council meeting. Opponents are still providing this as a reason why this development should not be approved. This is puzzling, given that no planned housing is within the estimated average 65db area that F-35 opponents have claimed is problematic for housing. Some argued in the last Plan Commission meeting that even those homes outside of this area will experience significant noise that should (supposedly) exclude residential uses. However, this would seem to exclude much of the East and North sides from residential uses.

As the task force looking into a possible F-35 overlay district concluded, there is no legal basis for the city to exclude housing from these areas and anything the city might do would likely inhibit needed investment in them. Given that these are some of the last affordable areas of the city for housing, any inhibition of housing development in these areas of the city would further exasperate our affordable housing shortage.

The experiences of this developer should embarrass the Council. They have done everything right, and have made many concessions (even some unreasonable ones) to the city and neighbors. And yet they have faced myriad arbitrary concerns and roadblocks. This experience will probably serve as a warning to all businesses that wish to build new homes in Madison. Only the most profitable (luxury) developments are worth the regulatory trouble.

Michael Zenz
12th Alder District

Three Types of Politics: Interests, Ideas, and Grievances

The political system in a democratic society allows a diverse group of people to make collective decisions. Here I define politics as the content of deliberations and decisions within such a system, rather than institutions and mechanisms used to bring about decisions. Of course, institutions do affect the content of politics, but that won’t be my focus here. Rather I will focus on different types of political content.

The content of our political discussions, arguments, and bargaining can be categorized into a number of incompatible types. They are about different subjects. These types of politics are all utilized by the major political parties, but we are often unaware of how their incompatibility thwarts political compromise and decisions. And they each leads to unique problems when any one begins to dominate the politics of a country or political party.

One of the basic problems we are seeing with politics today is a transition from a politics of ideas and interests to one primarily of grievance. Although the politics of grievance is perhaps best exemplified by Donald Trump and his followers, grievance is also becoming a dominant political theme on the left.

There is nothing particularly wrong with the inclusion of grievances within our politics. Many grievances are valid and must be addressed by any successful political system. However, when grievance dominates politics, much as when it dominates personal relationships and other social relations, it fosters a bitterness and anger that makes compromise and cooperation difficult.

I do not think that the answer to this problem is a politics dominated by either interests or ideas. A politics dominated by interests lacks any direction or justice and will tend to promote the narrow interests of whatever groups are in the best bargaining position. Likewise a politics dominated by ideas, where we attempt to transform government and society according to some coherent ideology, leads society to ignore the interests of various groups. History also tells us that a politics guided by ideology often justifies dispossession of property and violence in order to bring about the radical social change in line with that ideology.

My primary purpose here is to describe these three types of politics. However, I think that such a discussion provides reason to prefer a politics that mixes interests and ideas, and attempts to limit the inclusion of grievances.

Interests

A view traditionally held by political scientists (for instance, see Dahl’s Democracy and Its Critics) states that democratic politics allow the interests of the public to be expressed in political decisions. Voters will tend to vote according to their interests, and so a widespread franchise that weighs voters roughly equally will tend to create politics that reflect the interests of voters equally as well. Modern western thinkers tend to reduce “interests” to economic interests, though we probably shouldn’t do this. People also have an interest in living within an environment that allows the to act according to their non-economic values as well.

The politics of interests is a politics of negotiation. When people are guided by their interests, they tend to support tax codes in which they pay the least and budgets in which they gain the most. They expect their political representatives to act similarly. The rich, who benefit more from lower taxes more than generous social welfare programs will advocate for lower taxes, whereas the poor will advocate for higher taxes on the wealthy and more generous social welfare programs. Communities will pursue funds for their own roads and infrastructure projects, even when it puts other communities at a disadvantage. Farmers pursue farm subsidies, corporations that need large numbers of workers pursue free trade and open boarders, and labor unions pursue tariffs and closed borders.

Politics from interests tend to be both stable and, given a universal franchise, serve the interests of the most people. There are also ways of creating institutions so that political decisions take into account the interests of minority groups that might be largely ignored within large societies. One of the more powerful tools is the promotion of political localism in which many decisions are left to community governments. This has the effect of allowing national minorities with shared interests to possess majorities or significant minorities within local governments. It also allows for a safety valve, so to speak, so that minorities who believe that their interests are not being respected by local politics can move to a place where they are respected. For all of these reasons politics from interests serve as the stabilizing backbone of a thriving political system.

However, politics from interests are also shallow and myopic. They lack any vision or wider direction that can guide a state or community to become better, and will often promote outcomes that seem unjust. We feel a strong need for political decisions to tend toward some notion of fairness, even when it may disadvantage certain groups that have historically had various advantages. For this reason systems that are dominated by interests will also tend to be unstable in their own way, as people are unwilling to accept immediate personal and regional costs that promote the greater good. Therefore, it is important that political systems are also guided by ideas about what a good society looks like and what is just. They allow people to see how certain political policies will promote larger social goals that they support. A politics of ideas also allows politics to promote a sense of justice, something that binds people together within the society.

Ideas

When politics is too focused on individual and group interests it is very difficult for us to provide arguments for our favored policies that can be accepted as valid by others. Discussions about politics of interests begin and end with the bargaining power of the various groups. Good arguments show others how the result will benefit them and why they couldn’t hope to get a better result. These are politics in the mud.

Arguments about political ideas, on the other hand, allow us to discuss the merits of various political policies abstracted away from the particular bargaining context. Ideas allow us to paint a picture for others about a possible ideal society and describe how various policies might get us there. If politics of interests is fought in the mud, politics from ideas soars through the air.

The libertarian reformation of American economic policy during the 1980s (whatever we may think of it) would have been impossible without a clear vision of its ideals and goals. Free-market advocates did not just argue that their preferred policies would advantage the interests of voters (although they did do this), they also argued that they would create a system in which people were better able to get what they deserved. When taxes were redistributed, in the form of social welfare programs, some people were given things by the government that they had not earned and so did not deserve. Under this view, eliminating redistributive policies makes the system more just. Of course, they also offered an argument from interests (the high taxation required for redistribution is inefficient and so makes us all poorer), but the libertarian ideas were crucial for gaining widespread support even among those who benefited from redistributive policies.

The politics of ideas is important for understanding why people often vote against their interests. Some have wondered “what is wrong with Kanasas” where scores of people of modest means vote against the very redistributive policies that would likely benefit them. One could similarly wonder “what is wrong with California” where scores of rich people vote for redistributive policies and higher taxes that are unlikely to benefit them. They do so because of their political ideals, based upon ideas of what a just and good society is like. They believe that certain types of policies are just, even though those policies don’t benefit them.

It is the very ability of political ideas to support policies not in people’s direct interests that also make them dangerous. Although the politics from interests tend to by myopic, they also keep people grounded. It is rarely in anyone’s direct interests to commit acts of violence, disturb the peace of society, or radically alter important government programs. On the other hand, politics from ideas often call for radical actions and radical shifts in policy. If we are concerned about justice, and we see that a certain group of people are supporting an unjust system, then we may be able to justify violence against them.

Not only do ideas more easily justify radical actions, but they are also more susceptible to manipulation. The ideas that we have are more malleable than our own interests, and few people are any good at examining their own ideas or those provided by others. It was shocking to many how easily a large portion of the Republican party was made to believe that Trump rightly won the 2020 election. I don’t think that this should come as too much of a surprise. Political elites can easily manipulate the political ideas of those who already follow them – it is much more difficult for those leaders to alter the interests of their followers.

Grievance

Politics of interests and ideas are both forward-looking. When people are guided by them they seek the best possible future outcome. The past and present are only relevant in what they say about those future outcomes. However, people also often demand responses to their grievances over what they view as past wrongs. Many grievances are able to be resolved within the judicial system. If someone causes you a demonstrable harm, then in many cases you can file a lawsuit that is meant to resolve that grievance. However, many perceived harms are not subject to intervention by the judicial system; this is the role of a politics of grievance.

Politics of grievance is concerned with those grievances that are not in the purview of the existing judicial system. Those with grievances seek to use the political system to obtain restitution for the harms done to them, sometimes directly from the people who they believe harmed them and other times from society at large. Often times these grievances are valid and the target is indeed responsible, but other times grievances are largely invented (there was never a corresponding harm) or the target is incorrect. Ultimately the burden of differentiating valid and invalid grievances is placed on the political system.

Western political systems are generally good at handling both politics of interests (through bargaining) and politics of ideas (through deliberation), but have more difficulty handling grievances without creating conflict. Conflict is inherent to grievances, because they typically make demands on others without offering them anything in exchange. This is because grievances are backward looking; the perceived harm has already occurred and only compensation for that harm can resolve the grievance.

Grievances can still be worth pursuing, but these politics often require that the aggrieved group (or its allies) are in a position to coerce the group that supposedly committed the harm. For instance, after the Civil War, the north was in a position to resolve grievances of enslaved people in the south only by first destroying the ability of southern whites to resist. And of course, coercing groups who do not believe that they have done anything wrong will often cause them to create grievances of their own. This sets up a bitter cycle of grievance, and if coercion is not continually applied (just as it was ended after Reconstruction) the originally harmed group can find itself once again the subject of the perpetrators’ violence. Alternatively, the perpetrating group can be convinced of the wrongness of the harm they caused (as with Germans after WW2). However, this often requires a dramatic social change that is beyond the immediate coercive abilities of a state.

Interests, Ideas, and Grievances

A healthy political system will support both politics of interests and ideas. Interests ground political decisions in a concrete world of actual people, whereas ideas allow a political society to develop into something better and more coherent. A politics of grievances is important in providing recourse to those who were harmed when there is no recourse to be had through current law. However, this form of politics can quickly grow contentious and bitter. A political system that is characterized by grievance will tend to devolve as conflict interferes with a society’s ability to come to reasonable political agreements. After observing the events of the past year, it is hard not to conclude that American society may be devolving in just this way. Grievances are crowding out interests and ideas.

Covid Diary: Reflections at the start of Fall

The long (or did it seem short?  I’m not entirely sure.) and seemingly hot (it MUST have been hotter than normal…) summer is almost over, and so I thought I should reflect a bit on where we are.  Classes start up again at the UW on Wednesday, and I apparently have several Bucky masks waiting for me on campus if I ever find myself back there.  As I predicted, masks have finally become a pervasive consumer product.

The standard thinking — it seems held by everyone, though in direct contradiction to official line — is that the semester will not last long in-person.  Given that there is no universal and frequent testing for covid on campus, it will not take long for a limited outbreak to expand to unacceptable levels.  In the US, covid is simply too pervasive at this point to be put under control without dramatic behavioral changes.  It is unreasonable to expect students to wear masks all the time in dorms, or to refrain from socializing.  There will certainly be parties and other large social events off campus.  And why shouldn’t students act this way?  I take it that young people have largely ignored the lie that covid presents them with a level of risk that they are probably unwilling to accept.  Young people already do things that are a greater risk to them than covid.  The risk of their socializing is primarily on older people and we haven’t given them substantial reason to care about them; after all, these are the same people holding their student debt and constantly remarking about how they are privileged and lazy.  Any non-compliance of theirs’ is a failing of our society more than their rationality.

Though perhaps everything will turn out and UW will make it until the Thanksgiving finish-line without substantial outbreaks.  We shall see.  However, the early casualty of football does not bode well for the rest.

At this point the obsession over testing in the US is starting to appear misplaced.  Although testing is certainly important to indicate the start of an outbreak and to track its progress, at a certain level of infection there are simply too many people to test.  Our system of testing begins to buckle, no matter how much we have spent on it, and test results are returned too late to be of any good.  At that point — which is exactly where those in the US find themselves — people must generally assume at all times that they will encounter infected people.  They should also assume that they themselves are infected.  This means that we simply not act in ways that we could with low levels of infection and surveillance testing (the sort being done in South Korea, China, Japan and Europe).  Indoor dining is probably not safe in most areas, nor are social gatherings outside of a small “bubble.”  Life is going to be a cruel shadow of itself until these things change.

We are at this point in the US because Americans failed to take shutdowns seriously.  Shutdowns were supposed to cut back levels of infection, so that people could generally assume when they went out that they would not put themselves (or others) at risk of infection.  Wearing a mask when in inside public spaces would be enough of a reasonable precaution.  We could return to many of our previous activities.  However, in most areas people were too laxed in their behaviors.  They didn’t take the crises seriously.  Our lack of discipline, especially outside of major cities and among certain political groups, has doomed us to our current situation.

We might be enjoying our patio eating and pleasant mid-day walks now, but that will soon end in the north.  As winter arrives, our lives will become even more depressing.  Alternatively, we might just give up, and accept the sickness and death that comes with infection.  Yeah, that’s probably what we will do.  We are Americans after all — we don’t like feeling sad.

Covid Diary: and now, the entire logistic growth curve

One interesting and horrifying feature of the current phase of the Covid-19 epidemic in the US (“the end of the beginning”) is how our ability to track infections has surpassed our ability to control them.   Unlike in March, people are now able to get tested essentially on demand, without first meeting some restrictive set of  criteria meant to conserve testing facilities and materials.  Although testing has once again become scarce in places like Florida, Texas, and Arizona (where long lines at testing sites are certainly preventing many from being tested), outbreak surveillance is just about the only bright-spot in the American response to Covid.

When New York City was the center of the epidemic in the U.S. most people were only tested when they were very sick and in the hospital.  This meant that reported infections were among people far older, sicker, and more likely to die than the entire infected population.  This tendency of under-reporting (an understatement) was worsened by the overcrowding experienced in some NYC hospitals.  Many patients (even among the very ill) were told not to come to the hospital, and were likely never tested.  As a result, infection numbers in NYC did not come close to estimating the true number of infections.

We also missed the beginning of the growth curve.  It turns out that infections in NYC began around early February at the latest, and they were growing quite rapidly by the end of the month.  However, because we were not testing for community transmission at that time (only testing those with a very specific profile of international travel or contact with someone who did), infection counts trailed the beginning of the outbreak by weeks.

This may give us some insight into our current experience.  We are seeing dramatic increases in infections across the country, and especially in Texas and Florida.  Luckily, infections are currently dominated by younger people and death rates have only recently started to increase (and not dramatically).  We probably shouldn’t expect this trend to continue.

It shouldn’t be all that surprising that the most socially active population is infected first.  Given the messaging about risk-factors for Covid, the gap between older and younger people in frequency of social interactions is likely even larger than normal.  However, given enough community spread the coronavirus will come into contact with older community members, and death rates will once again increase.  However, this time the infection is spread across a far larger region of the country and there will be no complete shutdown on the scale of what was seen in March to stop the outbreak.  We should expect to see death counts that surpass what was seen in NYC.

 

 

Covid Diary: A trip to the grocery store, a trip to the future

Like a lot of people these days, I only go to the grocery store about every week and a half.  It is really the only thing I have been doing in public since all of this began around mid-March.  It has been interesting to see the changes that have occurred between trips.  The last time I went to the store, in early April, things had dramatically changed.  I had to wait in a short line to get in (limiting the store to 30 customers), there were lines 6 feet apart at the check-out to keep people socially distanced, and there was a large plastic barrier that had been erected between myself and the person checking me out.  It was a bit shocking, although I assumed I would eventually get used to it.

I went again yesterday.  Everything I mentioned above was the same.  The store was the same.  However, the changes this time were all in the people.  Nearly everyone was wearing a face covering of some sort.  They were also acting very conscious of their distance from others.  I had worried going in that I would feel out of place with my ridiculous bandana-covered face, but I shouldn’t have worried about that at all.  In fact, I would have felt like a social pariah if I hadn’t been wearing a mask.

This scene will be with us for a while: masked people efficiently grabbing their greens, spaghetti, and milk while warily moving around the 6ft bubbles of others.  At the time, I thought of it as a bit of a glimpse into my future.  Although right now it is quite striking in its novelty, it will eventually become quite mundane.

Though this isn’t quite right.  This is the scene from the early pandemic: the slight nervousness, the varied rag-tag materials of the face-masks.  This is a scene from a society caught off-guard, one that is trying to do whatever it can with the crap it found in the closet.  It is the scene from the Summer of 2020, when people are just happy that they can go buy clothing again.  It’s also a society still living off of the materials of pre-pandemic culture; the advertisements might remind us that something is wrong but the sitcoms don’t.  That, of course, will change.  Eventually we will have to figure out how to live our lives in the presence of the virus.  This will leak into the products of our culture, much like the War did in the ’40s.  There will also be a part of the culture devoted to trying to forget about the virus.  Not every story can be about the war.

The scene from the middle of the pandemic will be a bit different.  Those sexy n95s will make their debut at Macy’s in the Fall of 2020 (if it’s still in business).  Everyone will have their favorite.  Many will have a closets full, one for every outfit!  After all, you have to have something to wear when you go out to that fancy restaurant.  You won’t really care anymore that the host now takes a temperature measurement of your forehead before leading you to your seat, or that the server is garbed in a mask and gloves.  You will start to settle into the environment and practices that at one time seemed dystopian.  It’s like the heat in Arizona — it never gets any better, but you stop talking about it after a while.

Covid Diary: Denial

I’ve been struck recently by how those who should know better seem to be in denial about our current situation.  I’m not talking about Trump.  He has become a non-entity at this point, like a child hopelessly wishing everything would just get better.  However many serious people seem to be talking about “starting up the economy” without any clear sense that the world we knew before has been lost to us.  Our way of living has been likely lost for years and we will likely never see the world we knew before. There is not likely to be a cure coming soon, or even a very successful treatment for that matter.  There might be a successful vaccine developed, but don’t expect widespread availability until the fall of 2021.  Of course, hundreds of thousands of Americans will die of this disease before then.  Most estimates of deaths from the disease provided by the administration only go up to the end of summer, but this will be with us for far longer.

We have lost our way of life, because we cannot accept an outcome in which millions of Americans die instead of thousands.  In fact, even if we chose the deaths we would still lose our way of life.  One does not simply go about one’s life while so many people die and the healthcare system collapses.  And so we choose to stay away from one another.  We internalize new norms that make the physical presence of strangers (or even our family and friends) mentally painful for us.  That changes us and our society.

I’ll give a somewhat trite example of this change, but one that I think is rather instructive.  Just down the street from my house there is a neighborhood bar, a jazz club, and a breakfast place.  They are all small — you might even say cramped.  I love these places, and they are the soul of the neighborhood.  But their profitability is incompatible with social distancing.  In fact most bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues around the country are not likely profitable in a wold of social distancing, even if we assume that people can once again go to these places.  There will almost certainly be new occupancy rules that require restaurants to cut seating at least in half.  Of course, fancy takeout will be more common but so far demand for this has not come near to replacing sit-down restaurants.  People aren’t willing to spend $50 per person on takeout, and they certainly will not buy alcohol as they do it (which is where many profits come from).

Any innovations to accommodate social distancing in restaurants does not address the basic incompatibility between bars and social distancing.  In bars people socialize with strangers; they have to get close.  In other words bars cannot succeed until Covid has been brought under control.  But this will take a long time.  Even antibody “certificates” would only allow a small portion of the population to go about their business, and only in places that have already been hit hard by the disease.  This means that we will probably lose all of these businesses, as their owners realize that they simply cannot make a living by owning a restaurant or bar.  This will also devastate the commercial real-estate market along with the service industry, and perpetuate the vicious cycle of recession.

That is just one example of how we will lose so much from our communities that make them worth living in.  I don’t think disaster is inevitable, but it will require dramatic changes in public expenditures and laws.  We will need widespread  randomized testing, even of people who are not showing symptoms.  It goes without saying that people who have flu-like symptoms should all be tested and tracked.  However, given how widespread the disease is this is probably not technically possible.  We have certainly shown no ability to do any large-scale well-organized testing.

Additionally, local governments must allow businesses to spread out.  Bars and restaurants should be allowed to spill out into the streets, so that they can maintain distance between patrons while also making a profit.  Open container laws should largely be eliminated.  There are numerous other examples of creative legislation that might help.  We must be willing to be flexible in abandoning some norms and ways of doing business in order to preserve those things that we value.

I don’t expect any of the solutions above to actually be implemented.  And even then they may not be effective.  Our situation is far worse than most of us imagine.